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Cowessess chief asks Canadians to “stand by us” following discovery of graves

Warning: This story contains details that some readers may find distressing.

Warning: This story contains details that some readers may find distressing. If you are feeling triggered, please contact the National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline at 1-866-925-4419 or the Treaty 4 support line for southern Saskatchewan at 1-306-522-7494.

Following today’s announcement of the discovery of potentially 751 unmarked individual graves at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation asked the country to continue offering support to the Indigenous community as more details about residential school traumas arise.

“We all must put down our ignorance and accidental racism of not addressing the truth that this country has with Indigenous people. We are not asking for pity, but we are asking for understanding,” said Delorme. “We need time to heal and this country must stand by us.”

Marieval Indian Residential School was operated by the Roman Catholic Church from 1899 to 1997, and was one of the last few residential schools to close in Saskatchewan.

Cowessess First Nation took over the school’s cemetery from the Catholic Church in the 1970s, when it became a grave site for the community.

The First Nation began radar penetration of the 44,000 square metre site earlier in June. Delorme said that the experts from Saskatchewan Polytechnic administering the process have now recorded 751 hits of potential interest.

“The machine has a 10 to 15 per cent error margin, [so] we do know that there’s at least 600 [graves],” said Delorme. “It’s real and if you were to see it, there are 751 flags.”

Delorme said that grave markers for the sites had been removed by the church sometime in the 60s, leaving them unmarked.

Further analysis will be taking place in the coming weeks, said Delorme. Experts cannot currently confirm if the sites all contain the remains of children, or if adults who attended the local church or were from nearby towns were also buried in the area.

It is the most significant number of graves connected to a residential school site discovered in Canada yet.

Delorme called on the provincial and federal government to continue providing support for the examination of more former residential school sites, as there are likely more sites in the province yet to be revealed.

“This country needs to have truth and reconciliation. There’s going to be many more stories in the future, and this is Cowessess First Nation’s moment of our truth,” said Delorme.

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) echoed Delorme’s statement, during the broadcasted press conference.

“A lot of work, a lot of healing will take place now. There are many sites that we’re going to be doing this similar work, and we will find more, so we ask for each and every one of you to continue to work with us, to continue to pray for us,” said Cameron. “We need support as we grieve.”

He also called on the federal government and Catholic Church to release residential school records, and said the FSIN will be demanding a full, independent and public inquiry into the deaths of First Nations children in Canada.

“Our people deserve more than apologies and sympathies, which we are grateful for,” said Cameron. “Our people deserve justice.”

Delorme also asked for a formal apology from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, for the role the religious institution played in the operation of residential schools.

The next steps for Cowessess First Nation will be to obtain records and identify those who may be buried in the grave sites, which Delorme said will be a painful but necessary process for many.

“We have generations that may have not have went to residential schools, but are feeling the first and second generations of that impact,” said Delorme. “All we ask of all of you listening is that you stand by us as we heal and we get stronger.”

Radar penetration will also continue at other sites on Cowessess First Nation that have been identified by oral stories, said Delorme.